Four-and-a-half years after a runaway train exploded and killed 47 people in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, a jury has acquitted three men facing charges of criminal negligence causing death.
After nine days of deliberation – at one point the jury in the high-profile case said it was at an impasse – jurors announced Friday afternoon that Thomas Harding, Richard Labrie and Jean Demaître were not guilty for their roles in the disaster. Mr. Harding had faced additional charges of dangerous operation of railway equipment or dangerous operation of railway equipment causing death.
The fate of Mr. Harding, the train's engineer, and the two other employees of the now-defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway closes one of the last chapters in the worst rail disaster in modern Canadian history. The derailment and rupturing of tank cars carrying oil early on the morning of July 6, 2013, tore the heart out of the once-picturesque town of 6,000.
Appearing outside the courtroom after the verdict, Mr. Labrie, the railway's traffic controller, read a statement meant for the residents of Lac-Mégantic. "I hope you got the answers you've asked for in this trial. While I've never spoken publicly, I've always thought of you," he said through tears.
"You showed us a lot of courage, a lot of self-help and a lot of resilience, and I thank you. … This was difficult. This was long. Now this is finished. I hope that we can turn the page."
Mr. Labrie told reporters that throughout the trial he felt he and the other two defendants had the support of the town. A victim's father who attended the entire trial said he was satisfied with the verdict.
Over the three-month trial in the nearby city of Sherbrooke, the eight men and four women of the jury heard about the operations of the short-line railway and the actions that led to a train loaded with crude oil rolling unsupervised into Lac-Mégantic.
Much of the trial revolved around how many brakes Mr. Harding set on the train before the disaster. The legal team representing the engineer admitted during the trial that he did not apply enough brakes to secure the long freight train before he left it for the night. Hours later, the train rolled down a slope into the town. However, Mr. Harding's lawyer, Thomas Walsh, argued that his client took enough safety precautions and thus was not guilty of criminal negligence but rather was the product of a shoestring railway with a spotty safety culture.
"The Crown asked for Mr. Harding's lack of perfection to be criminalized. It just didn't make sense – lack of perfection is not a sin," Mr. Walsh told The Globe and Mail before the verdict.
A report from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada concluded that no single event or individual caused the derailment. The federal agency blamed a widespread series of failures that stretched from the oil fields of North Dakota, where the oil was pumped, all the way to missteps by the engineer a few kilometres uphill from Lac-Mégantic. The report was ruled as inadmissible evidence by the judge.
While the rebuilding of Lac-Mégantic's downtown is now under way, trains still rumble through – to the opposition of many, including newly elected Mayor Julie Morin.
Elected in early November, Ms. Morin said many in her town weren't interested in following the trial unfolding an hour down the road. "Whatever the result of the trial is, nothing will change for Lac-Mégantic. We're still rebuilding from this tragedy, and it will forever be a part of our history," she told The Globe in French. "You didn't hear much about the trial here in Lac-Mégantic at all. People put their energy into reconstruction."
That's the view taken by René Simard, who said he hasn't had much interest in the legal proceedings but instead has focused on putting his life back together. An arts teacher at the local high school, he narrowly avoided death in the rail disaster when he went outside to smoke on the terrace of the Musi-Café bar. When the train careened into town moments later, most of the people inside the bar died.
"I just haven't followed the trial at all. Whenever I see anything linked to the tragedy, I just move on. I'm not interested," he said.
His view is shared by other townsfolk contacted by The Globe. According to Mr. Simard, the trial has been watched far more closely by his friends and family in other parts of the province, where people have been looking for some form of closure.
"Whatever the verdict is, I don't think it'll be the fault of those guys on trial. It's the company's fault. [The men] were just doing what they were told," Mr. Simard said.
Much of the downtown was levelled by the derailment. Now, new parks have been created, new streets have been paved and sidewalks laid out. Presented with a clean slate, Ms. Morin said the town has taken the time to ensure it planned its new core well.
The mayor, a 34-year-old mother of three, said many in Lac-Mégantic are still reeling from the tragedy and remain fragile. "People have lost their sense of direction, so when we take decisions there are still emotions and feelings of loss," she said.
There remains one thing the provincial and federal governments must do before Lac-Mégantic can move on from the disaster, Ms. Morin said: She and many of her constituents want the rail line through the downtown, which was rebuilt after the disaster and quickly put back into service, moved outside the town's developed areas. Neither level of government has yet committed to build a rail bypass.
"Until the rail bypass is built, until the train stops going through our downtown, we won't be able to turn the page," she said. "The five-year anniversary will be in July, and we'll still have trains going through our town with dangerous cargoes. That's nonsense, and we're trying to be heard by the government."